The DE&I ‘Chill’

One-fifth of firms still don’t offer diversity, equity, and inclusion programs, and surveys show support of initiatives has dropped. Can interest be revived in a tough economy?

Recently, after experiencing years of full-throated support from his leadership, the DEI professional sensed a weakening in their enthusiasm. At the same time, fewer coworkers seemed willing to promote his programming. Was a chill developing, or was he imagining things?

It wasn’t his imagination. After years of growth, the support for DEI programs that first hit a wall last year has declined. According to a survey of more than 1,000 firms, leadership support for DEI initiatives has fallen by 18% in two years; today, one-fifth of companies offer no diversity programming. The drop reflects a growing disillusionment. Since last year, earnings-call mentions of DEI, green initiatives, and even the term “ESG” are down by one-third. “The pendulum is swinging in the other direction,” says Alina Polonskaia, a global leader in the DE&I Consulting practice at Korn Ferry.

This dip in support is partially caused by a natural regression of the surge of attention, particularly around racial inequity, that came with the #MeToo and Black Lives Matters movements. After George Floyd’s murder, corporate momentum around DEI and transformation spiked. Most companies were under pressure from stakeholders to contribute funding and support. This pressure has slowly subsided, even as economic pressures and political polarization have increased. “Now we’re somewhat removed from that moment, and people are reverting to prior tendencies,” says Flo Falayi, associate client partner in leadership development, executive coaching and DE&I at Korn Ferry.

Polonskaia finds the shift to be troubling and believes it may cost firms business opportunities that a diversified workforce can attract. There may also be legal issues. “Companies are setting themselves up for a lot of trouble,” she says.

Experts admit that some of the blame sits with DEI practitioners themselves. Last year, Korn Ferry research showed that though global organizations widely identified their equity, diversity, and inclusion problem areas, the activities they undertook to fix them, such as hiring DEI leaders and instating unconscious-bias training, would not address those problems on a large scale. “The outcomes that were expected were not delivered,” says Polonskaia. Firms produced few tangible examples to demonstrate how DEI interventions could make them smarter and more relevant.

Rather than focusing on DEI programming, experts say, firms should embed inclusion, diversity, and equity into their business missions. “Really weave DEI into the narrative and core goals of the organization, and it becomes just part of what the company is trying to do on a daily basis,” says Falayi. For example, imagine employees being focused on wowing all of the company’s constituents rather than feeling anxiety about, say, leaning toward one group over another. “That’s your North Star,” says Falayi. “It takes away the apprehension.”

This is most efficiently accomplished not by focusing on DEI itself, but on products and customers instead—the crucial components of market share. “It’s essential in a highly multicultural, diverse environment,” says Polonskaia.


Learn more about Korn Ferry’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion capabilities.